Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel are tucked away in a dimly lit private dining room in a posh West London hotel. A coterie of PRs and management hover while the foam dries to a white crust on Nicolas’ cappuccino cup. They’re both clad in head to toe regulation French chic. Nicolas is wearing a polo neck, Jean- Benoît (who introduces himself as “J-B”) a midnight coloured baker boy cap. No one is smoking but there is an implicit tang of Gitanes. They couldn’t be more French if they’d been scripted by Luc Besson.
Gradually detaching from the hum of chatter to say hello they have the mute, patient look of men enduring a long day of press. “We’re from Paris, the best place!” Nicolas says wistfully, clearly wishing he were back in his beloved Left Bank. Talking to journalists over cold coffee is the price they pay not just for the new album, ‘Pocket Symphony’ but also for ‘Moon Safari’ – the 1998 launch pad into the electronic music stratosphere. It reached as far as my shoddy floor Philadelphia dorm room, where I heard ‘Sexy Boy’ for the first time online, before rushing out to buy the album. “The night we recorded ‘Sexy Boy’ we could see it would be a hit. We were like, wow, oh my God! Everyone in the room knew,” Nicolas says with a grin.
The album made them international stars. “We were two little French men, suddenly we took the planes, we met the world,” J-B says with a shake of his head. He has delicate hands, and big, soft eyes. Sometimes he doesn’t look entirely sure meeting the world like that was a great idea. “We enjoy to meet people and to play music… you know, I think they go to the show just to be part of the club and understand what we are doing,” he explains, quite seriously. While Nicolas is quicker to discuss their projects – the soundtracks for Sofia Coppola, ‘Pocket Symphony’ – J-B relishes exploring the ethos of Air.
“We don’t have normal jobs, we go out all the time, we don’t have sentimental lives that are stable,” Nicolas confesses, trying to quantify what it means to be one of France’s biggest musical exports.
Jean-Benoît has a broader picture in mind. “The difficult thing is you’re AIR, at night, in the morning… when you become an artist it’s for all of your life. You’re even working when you dream. The music is always there. This intensity, the fact you’re always searching, makes you an artist.”
Nicolas is there to reel his partner in from the lofty heights of Art, to talk about the concrete influences on ‘Pocket Symphony’. “We were listening to Phillip Glass, Johnny Cash a little bit, some early Depeche Mode, The Cure.” For all that, the album is definably Air. A luscious little gumdrop of an LP, shot through with a soft-focus romanticism that is as alluring as it is antipathetic to rock ‘n’ roll edginess. There are obvious hits – ‘Left Bank’ is music for art students to cry to, the album’s answer to ‘La Femme De Argent’. (“Was it written about anyone? Each song is different, there’s a different process!” Nicolas says, mysteriously.) ‘One Hell Of A Party’ is distinctly reminiscent of Cash’s ‘Hurt’, while the chiming nursery-rhyme notes of ‘Once Upon A Time’ unpick the less painful side of love.
They are endearingly happy to be romantics. “We understand that before sex you have to take your time,” J-B says, breaking into a rare laugh. “The real meaning of the word ‘romantic’ is very wide. It can also mean being depressed, or feeling nostalgia. It is not only about loving someone.”
Their carefully cultivated blend of desire and melancholy (see ‘Napalm Love’ and ‘Lost Message’) has made them irresistible to a certain sort of fan. Once, in Detroit no less, the duo was accosted by a teenage girl who turned up at the gig with a huge bag. She was running away, could she come on tour with them, please? Nicolas shakes his head at the memory. “It was weird, but it was kind of moving,” he said.
The music has taken them far outside their comfort zone of Parisian life and French culture. “Music is not the French cup of tea,” says Nicolas. “French people do good things with art, literature, cinema, but for some reason we have horrible taste in music.”
On the other hand, not everyone who embraces the music understands Air. J-B remembers, with another shake of his head, the time they were on the road in Oregon. Their tour bus broke down, leaving them stranded in some two-bit town. “We were trying to get help, speaking English, but they couldn’t understand a word. I don’t think they’d ever heard someone foreign before,” he sighs.
To hear them, today, you’d think it was a rough life being Air, but they don’t want to give the wrong impression. Apropos nothing, J-B chips in: “I have a little nephew and he never complains. If he falls down he gets up. He has no problems at all. It’s a good lesson. Sometimes we have to keep going and stop complaining.”
As they swathe themselves in scarves, preparing to go, they visibly unwind. Fundamentally they’re two very nice men, still not entirely sure what the fuss is about. When the waiter, who’s been greedily eavesdropping for the last half hour, asks for an autograph they are charm personified. Then they nod goodbye and disappear back into the private world of Air – a very French band indeed.